Updated: Apr 10, 2020
The classic Saab 900 shouldn't really have worked. When it was launched in 1978 it was a 'make do', a stretched version of the 10 year old Saab 99 that was meant to push the firm upmarket just long enough to enable a proper, ground-up new car to be launched.
Instead, it lasted 16 years, almost outliving the car that was meant to replace it, the 9000.
There's a very good reason why. Most of the million or so people who forked out for a brand new 900 probably understood that they were getting into a creaky old design. But they didn't care. Because until 1994, when it was finally replaced by a new model, there was simply nothing like the 900 on the market. And the virtues that sold nearly 1 million 900s when new remain solid reasons why you should buy one now. Here's why.
1. It's Built To Last
When Saab was building the 99 and 900 it was a small, independent concern. It engineered its cars to last, because they had to - harsh Scandinavian winters and roads punished cars. Which is why most European manufacturers sent their cars there for development testing.
Unlike those other European car makers, Saab didn't have the parsimonious bean counters that sucked the very life out of the firms they worked for. Compared to the massive Saab aeroplane business, the car factory was a play thing. A hobby. So Saabs were built as the engineers really intended. From thick steel. With safety not just in mind, but front of mind. The 900 was so strong that it had to be adapted to comply with US safety standards that had never encountered a car like it. You could lift a Saab up by its door handles without compromising the structure. And the engines lasted too. The basic unit may have been a Triumph slant four, but there the similarities ended. Saab effectively re-engineered the whole thing to be more reliable and more durable. 200,000 miles is barely run in for a 900.
Of course, Saabs rust. The doors trap moisture, the arches rot and they deteriorate in places you can't actually see. But they're made of metal. It eventually comes with the territory.
2. It's Comfortable
Quite a lot of the car ideas that we now take for granted started at Saab. Like dashboards conveniently organised by function and within easy reach of fingertips. Ergonomically designed seats. Heated seats. Excellent heating and ventilation. A driving position totally designed around the driver, not how best to cram everything into a tight space.
All of which makes the Saab feel surprisingly modern for a classic car. The ideas pioneered in the 900 have become common currency. And remained so because they are just so right.
3. It's Great To Drive
The Saab's quirkiness and character often tend to crowd out the fact that a well sorted 900 is a brilliant car to drive. The clever suspension set up provides direct, accurate steering while the car's suitability for high speed ice driving mean it is an adept and willing B-road banzai.
And then there's that engine. The 2 litre motor may have been long in the tooth by the time it was dropped into the 900 but it was still a great powerplant. And, of course, it was turbocharged by the people who brought turbocharging to the masses. The full pressure 175 bhp 'Aero' turbos are a hoot, a mix of dawdling off-boost trundling and insane boosted, tyre-scrabbling power. The 900's Achilles heel is the gearbox, a slightly notchy affair that doesn't cope well with all the power. But that's a minor niggle in the face of such joy.
The 900 really is a car you can jump in and drive hundreds of miles and get out at the other end ready to face the rest of your day. It's a classic. But a genuine daily driver too.
4. It's Practical
The 900 may be a bit narrow by modern standards but the extra length front and back - Saab just tacked on a longer nose and boot to the original 99 structure - means that the popular hatchback is simply massive. Cabin space is also good, although you may need to jostle for elbow room. After the old Saab 95 bowed out of production in 1978 the company didn't build a new estate car until after the 900's demise because they never needed to.
5. It's Classless
Saab pitched the 900 as an executive car, but nobody was really fooled. This was a car that was classless: it wasn't snobby like a Mercedes, grasping like a Granada or self-satisfied like a BMW or Audi. A Saab simple Was. Yes, architects and men in black polo necks seemed to gravitate towards them, but put a Saab on the driveway and nobody's nose was put out of joint. They were just envious.
All that is because buying a Saab made so much sense. It looked pretty good, it went quickly, there was space for a family and a grand piano and it had lots of clever, quirky features that nobody else had thought of. The badge on the boot was pretty much an after thought. The Saab's discreet character may explain why a rebooted 1980s James Bond drove one.
6. It's Clever
Other car makers equipped their models with showroom tinsel like wood veneer and chrome trim. But underneath was a bog-standard car with four wheels, an engine and some seats.
Not so Saab. Whichever 900 you bought, from the lowly GLi to the range-topping T16S, you got features that served a genuine, practical purpose. We might like to call them quirky now, but that overlooks the fact that they were there for a reason. Like the wrap-around windscreen; fighter jets have them for a reason, so that pilots can see better. So Saab put them in their cars too, even though it costs more and needs explained. Or the central ignition key. Seems kerayzee. Isn't. In an accident it's one less thing to jab into you when the world starts caving in. You also have to flick a Saab into reverse to disengage the key - so it will never roll back on you.
Then there's the door sills. The 900 doesn't have any. The doors wrap around under the car because in an accident it's safer and they're less likely to pop out.
This is stuff that nobody who bought a Saab thought about or noticed until the sales person told them. But once they knew no other car could quite match up..
So clever, not quirky.
The 900 is beginning to emerge from the shadows, with values following suit. So now is a good time to grab one of the best and most useable classic cars out there.
True to form, Saab barely changed the 900 from its launch to its demise. The styling was tweaked slightly - earlier cars are referred to as 'flat nose' due to the headlight design - and the engines gained 16 valves in the late 80s, but not much else altered. There were several different body styles - the five and three door hatches are the most numerous but there was also a two and four door notchback saloon.
The turbocharged cars are split into Low Pressure Turbos (LPT) with 145 bhp and Full Pressure Turbos (FPT) with 175 bhp (or 185 bhp for the rare Carlsson or final 'Ruby' editions). The FPT cars are the most sought after, particularly the three door shown here with the standard 'Aero' bodykit. But it is also worth seeking out one of the 252 two door Aero saloons: they have much stiffer bodyshells and therefore better handling.
Saab also chopped the 900 to create a very pretty and practical four seater convertible. This could also be specified with the FPT engine and Aero bodykit. Saab's engineers made valiant attempts to strengthen the convertible shell but scuttle shake will still be your driving companion.
When buying a 900 watch out for rust in hidden areas - under the battery tray, the boot floor - particularly the base of the inner arches - and the transmission tunnel. Arches and door bottoms also rot out. Parts are beginning to get scarce as fewer cars are being scrapped. Mechanically the engines are very strong but the gearboxes less so - weak synchro and jumping out of gear are the common signs of wear. The box sits under the engine so can be expensive to repair with poor parts availability.
Expect to pay around £5,000 for a running, solid 3 door Aero, about half that for a LPT. The best cars are twice that. Convertibles are generally about 10-20% more expensive than hard tops. The final limited-run Rubys are sought after, although they lose the desirable Aero kit and the 10 bhp advantage adds little to the car's performance.
Saab may have gone bump a decade ago but the cars have a very solid following, which means there is an excellent club and range of specialists to help source parts or fix your car. Whichever 900 you choose, you're buying into a classic that is not just entertaining but very different from its competitors. And currently costs a lot less than comparable Fords, BMWs, Audis and Mercedes.
Graham Eason runs Great Driving Days and owns the white 2 door Aero in these photos. He used to own the red car.